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28 legislators urge Biden to slash Pentagon emissions

An executive order directs the government to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but exempts the Defense Department. A letter led by Senator Markey demands the White House close that loophole.

A member of the US military sits at the edge of a chinook helicopter leaving Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.Erin Schaff/Associated Press

Over two dozen federal lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden on Friday urging him to impose a carbon reduction mandate on the Department of Defense.

The letter, led by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and New York Congressperson Mondaire Jones, focuses on an order that Biden signed last month directing the government to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050, while eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from federal buildings and vehicles. Yet it includes exemptions for activity deemed “in the interest of national security,” as well as anything associated with intelligence, combat, and military training.


“The loophole in the President’s Executive Order that largely exempts the Department of Defense from having to meet the scientifically necessary target of net-zero economy-wide emissions by 2050 is a gap big enough to drive a tank through,” Senator Markey wrote in an email to the Globe.

In November, Markey and Jones also co-authored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring the Pentagon to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with science-based targets. Biden signed the amendment into law last month.

The Department of Defense accounts for a massive share of US government emissions — 56 percent, according to federal data published in December. It is also the largest institutional global carbon polluter and, according to a landmark 2019 study cited in the letter, the world’s top institutional consumer of petroleum.

“The Biden administration has taken important steps across agencies to address the worsening climate crisis, promote justice, and reduce harmful emissions,” said Senator Markey. “But it cannot and should not ignore the largest federal emitter of them all: the Pentagon.”

Neta C. Crawford, a political science professor at Boston University who authored the 2019 study, said removing the exemption from the December order and thereby forcing the Pentagon to slash its carbon emissions at the same rate as the rest of the federal government would be “significant.”


“DoD’s emissions [footprint] is large,” she said. “It’s the size of entire countries’ annual emissions.”

Crawford noted that the Pentagon has a long history of being exempted from climate plans. Back in 1997, the US successfully lobbied for a reporting loophole for militaries. Newly declassified federal documents show that the Department of Defense itself pushed for this clause.

Yet as the Pentagon itself notes, unchecked emissions have also threatened military operations. Soldiers have been called upon to help fight climate change-fueled wildfires, floods and droughts that put bases at risk, and environmental disasters can provoke instability and conflict.

“These are the ironies,” said Crawford.

On the campaign trail, President Biden pledged to take a “whole-of-government” approach to climate change. Representative Jones said that to keep that promise, he must include defense operations in his decarbonization plans.

“With so much at stake, half measures are simply unacceptable,” Jones wrote in an email. “If President Biden is serious about combating this crisis, he must lift this exemption and ensure that our military does its part to save our planet before it’s too late.”

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.